Just about a month ago, Pope Francis created quite a stir when he sent out a tweet that said, "Inequality is the root of social evil." Two things happened. First, this was re-tweeted more than 17,000 times, and secondly, there was a great hue and cry from some corners about the over-simplification of economics by the pope, or at least that he was confusing.
To put this tweet in perspective, we have to look at the context of where this succinct line came from. This was not a sentence just made up for the pope's Twitter account (@Pontifex). Actually, it was the last line from one of the paragraphs of his Apostolic Exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel," which he issued last fall.
The relevant paragraph reads like this: "As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills."
All kinds of recent studies have shown how income inequality is a problem around the world. Just recently, a study from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development showed that the income gap is widening in many developed nations. The United States, far from being shielded from this problem, is actually one of three countries that have the largest inequality (along with Turkey and Israel).
There are a number of economic reasons for this growing disparity and inequality, but all these developments cannot be explained by economics alone. Consider how insightful Pope Francis is to identify the "absolute autonomy of markets" as one of the "structural causes" of inequality - the problem is the prevalent attitude that markets should be the driving force of human behavior, not morality.
Some commentators have tried to show how the pope's comments are just simply untrue, since there is, in their minds, so much regulation of business these days. But they miss the point - the absolute autonomy of markets has less to do with rules and regulations and a lot more to do with how we relate to one another. In a "market driven" economy, right and wrong are determined not by ethics and morals or the common good, but by what best serves the "economy" and the well-being of the rich and powerful.
This is what Pope Francis means when he says in another section of "The Joy of the Gospel" that there is a "dictatorship of an impersonal economy" that lacks any truly human purpose. The financial systems, he says, rule behavior rather than serve the common good. This is why the earnings of a wealthy minority grow exponentially and widen the gap that separates the poorer majority from prosperity.
And how complicit are we in this whole process? How easily do we excuse the unethical actions of the "market" as just the cost of doing business? When businesses lay off workers do we see it as just a necessary part of increasing profits? Or do we recognize the calamity and disruption that it will cause for the families involved? Do we wink and smile at the shrewdness of unscrupulous lenders, Wall Street investors, and those who prey on those who are more desperate?
Inequality is the root of social ills and will only begin to be solved when each of us begins to support the person and the common good and not the "market."
Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Western New York and an instructor at Christ the King Seminary. He may be reached via email.